Apr 092012
 

Microsoft founder Bill Gates is today one of the world’s biggest philanthropists having built his business from an obscure traffic management software company to what was at one stage the world’s biggest technology corporation.

But what if he’d been born in Sutherland, New South Wales rather than Seattle, Washington? How different would things have been for an Australian Bill Gates?

The first thing is he would have been encouraged to study law; just like his dad. In the 1970s lawyers had far more status and career prospects than software developers in Australia.

Causing more concern for his parents and career counselor would have been his determination to run his own business. It’s far safer to get a safe job, buy a house then start buying investment properties to fund your retirement.

The Funding Drought

If Bill still persisted with his ideas, he’d have hit a funding problem. No bank wouldn’t be interested in lending and his other alternatives would restricted.

In the Australia of the 1970s and 80s they’d be few alternatives for a business like Micro Soft. Even today, getting funding from angel groups and venture capital funds depend upon luck and connections rather than viable business ideas.

Bill Gates’ big break came when IBM knocked on his door to solve their problem of finding a personal computer operating system; the likelihood of any Australian company seeking help from a small operator – let alone one run by a a couple of twenty somethings – is so unlikely even today it’s difficult to comprehend that happening.

Eventually an antipodean Bill Gates would have probably admitted defeat, wound up his business and gone to work for dad’s law firm.

Invest in property, young man

Over time a smart, hard working young lawyer like Bill would have done well and today he’d be the partner of a big law firm with a dozen investment properties – although some of the coastal holiday properties wouldn’t be going well.

While some things have changed in the last thirty years – funding is a little easier to find in the current angel and venture capital mania – most Australians couldn’t think about following in Bill Gates’ path.

Part of the reason is conservatism but a much more important reason are our taxation and social security systems.

Favoring property speculators over entrepreneurs

Under our government policies an inventor, innovator or entrepreneur is penalised for taking risks. The ATO starts with the assumption all small or new businesses are tax dodges while ASIC is a thinly disguised small business tax agency and assets tests punish anyone with the temerity to consider building an business rather than buying investment properties.

At the same time a wage earner is allowed to offset losses made in property or shares against their income taxes, something that those building the businesses or inventing the tools of the future are expressly forbidden from doing.

Coupled with exemptions on taxing the capital gains on homes, Australian households – and society – is vastly over invested in property.

Making matters worse, the ramping up of property prices over the last thirty years has allowed generations of Australians to believe that property is risk free and doubles in value every decade.

That perception is reinforced by banks reluctant to lend to anyone who doesn’t have real estate equity to secure their loans.

So we have a society that favours property speculation over invention and innovation.

Every year in the run up to Federal budget time tax reform becomes an issue, the real effects of negative gearing and other subsidies for housing speculation – the distortion of our economy and societies investment attitudes – are never discussed.

In Australia there are thousands of smart young kids today who could be the Bill Gates’ of the 21st Century.

The question is do we want to encourage them to lead their generation or steer them towards a safe job and an investment property just like grandpa?

  One Response to “What if Bill Gates had been born in Australia?”

  1. You’re right Paul.

    I do come from around Sutherland and, with a colleague and the help of venture capital consultants, we put together a detailed business case, after a number of months of effort, for developing an operating system and related software applications based on the Linux Operating System and existing packages such as Star Office (as it was in those days 1998), now LibreOffice.

    At the centre of our idea was the development of a Graphical User Interface (called GNOME) that would allow users to fully access all of the features of the operating system and to do things, such as install and remove software, without requiring months of training.

    The venture capitalists just couldn’t see how you could make money out of selling a service rather than selling software… and besides which, in their mind, Microsoft was already there so why try to reinvent the wheel. “Do you have any patents?”… “Ah… No we don’t… We have an idea for making money.”

    Ubuntu and Red Hat, just to name a few, show that this model can be a commercial winner.

    I came to the conclusion that if we’d wanted to find money for home units, even race horses, or open a pie shop in the city, we would have found a more receptive audience in Australia than for a venture that involved building a lucrative business on existing technology but had, at least in its initial stages, no Intellectual Property.

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